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  • Writer's pictureHollis Robbins

Elite Opinion

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

When I was briefly a doctoral student at Stanford in 1991 (after my Master's in Public Policy at Harvard, before returning five years later for a Master's in English literature), I was a research assistant for the excellent Richard A. Brody, who passed away last year. Dick's work at the time focused on how public opinion was swayed by the appearance of elite 'experts' on TV news. I had written a final paper/thesis of sorts at the Kennedy School of Government analyzing network evening news coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (whether it had or had not attended sufficiently to the idea of 'risk') and so I presented myself to him as someone prepared to do research on television news.

Back then there was no internet really -- and certainly no Google -- so research was done by looking at volumes of the synopses of news coverage published by the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. Each network's news coverage each day was broken down by length of segment, reporter, on-air guests, a synopsis of the story, and a description of the images involved. I rarely checked the quality of these synopses because there was little else, beyond ordering and screening of videotapes to watch the news every night. Sometimes I did this, for the Valdez paper. But only a few times for Dick's research.

Dick was interested in judgmental shortcuts to opinion in the run-up to the Persian Gulf War. His thesis was that a person did not actually have to have an opinion on something but rather kept in mind a list of elite experts and whatever that expert's opinion would be the opinion of the person watching. The article Brody published was:"Crisis, war, and public opinion: The media and public support for the president," which appeared in Taken by storm: The media, public opinion, and US foreign policy in the Gulf War (1994): 210-230." (I think I'm cited as the researcher somewhere.) The book he eventually wrote was: Assessing the President: The Media, Elite Opinion, and Public Support.

The idea is that the elite opinion was a kind of heuristic, enabling judgmental shortcuts. Who has time to have an opinion on anything? Easier instead to select a stable of 'thought leaders' (the term wasn't current at the time) and let them do the thinking for you. I don't remember the names of the elite experts but I mapped the rise and fall of support for the Gulf War in Gallup polls that lagged one or another expert appearing on ABC, CBS, NBC, and/or PBS. The results were elegant and convincing. You saw your elite friend on the news and your opinion strengthened. I was actually surprised by the data thought Dick was not. I think he found it charming that I was shocked at how easily people were swayed.

I think about elite shortcuts in the context of social media and what people post. Podcasters are the dominant elite judgement shortcuts I see operating. Ezra Klein. Joe Rogan. For others it's business leaders and politicians. For some people it's Elon Musk. For others, it's AOC. In Silicon Valley it's Paul Graham. Around the Jewish holidays it used to be David Brooks but not so much any more.

I've never liked hanging my understanding of a topic on the hook of an expert. Too risky! Too dependent. Better to do the work myself. Thank you Dick Brody -- I think my resistance predated working with you but working with you refined my understanding of the practice.


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